Addendum: what if it was Rachel and Ross?

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After reading comments and a couple of email responses about my Ross and Rachel article, I thought of an additional point to make (or another way to make the same point, I suppose, which is that it’s a male privilege to think the relationship is all or nothing). One of the emails pointed out that women can also define relationships as all or nothing, which is absolutely true. But I think much depends on what it is you’re asking for from the other person, and how closely that matches the usual gender script. For example, if you’re a woman who wants security from a man, that’s not so hard to get because men are culturally trained to provide that to women. But if you’re a woman who wants a man to support your ambitions and admire that you can out-shoot him, that’s far more rare because there is no cultural script that supports men admiring women. In fact, in works like Annie Get Your Gun, we talented gals are advised to screw up on purpose so our men can see us as inferior and therefore be comfortable loving us. It’s we who must adjust, not the men.

The case of Ross and Rachel is very gender-flipped (perhaps intentionally) in terms of the usual stereotypes. Rachel wants Ross not to be possessive and suspicious; not to interrupt her at her job; not to expect her to put him ahead of the job. Ross’ role is the traditional female TV whiner girlfriend who’s too silly to understand why her man can’t just thumb his nose at the boss and leave early for a picnic. Rachel’s role is the traditional beleaguered guy who’s in love with a whiner. What Rachel wants is not what men are culturally trained to give women: freedom to pursue her ambitions and fulfill herself through a career. It’s hardly surprising Ross doesn’t get it, and perhaps that’s why we want to cut him some slack.

Or perhaps it’s just because he’s a man and we expect women to do the extra work to keep relationships afloat, and by not doing that, Rachel doesn’t deserve any better than she gets. Look at the situation gender-flipped, and tell me the first thought you have isn’t to condemn Rachel:

Rachel is suspicious and possessive of Ross, who’s got a gorgeous female co-worker (whom we know he treats strictly as a co-worker/pal). Rachel tries to lure Ross away from his job, but he says he’s too busy with a deadline, so she shows up at his office with a picnic basket. Ross gets mad because she’s interrupting his work day at a crucial time and embarrassing him in front of his boss.

Later Ross comes to see her to give her a chance to apologize. Rachel doesn’t see why she should apologize; as his girlfriend, she thinks she should come ahead of any ol’ job. Rachel asks if this is really about his gorgeous co-worker. Indignant, Ross says he can’t keep having this conversation and says “Maybe we should take a break… no, I mean a break from us.”

Rachel huffs out and soon thereafter sleeps with the first available man she can find.

Really try to picture this, really try to imagine it with Rachel making all the insane demands and then revenge-dating the instant Ross stands up to her harpy crap, and tell me your first thought isn’t a variation on “What a bitch.”

I’ll admit it; when I first saw the show, I could see both characters’ viewpoints about the “break.” Only later did I come to see Ross as the jealous harpy who deserves to be broken up with. But switch the genders – with Rachel as the harpy – and I’d be a lot quicker to single her out for most (perhaps all) of the blame. Because before I was taught to think critically, taught to see privilege and recognize cultural programming, I had it drilled into me that when a relationship was rocky, it was the woman’s job to fix it, and if she didn’t the man was entitled to dump her and go find someone better. Even if the man was the cause of all or most of the relationship problems.

Comments

  1. kristi says

    Good analysis. It helped me remember why I went from liking Ross to being disgusted at him. For me, the whole show went downhill after this.

  2. says

    Really try to picture this, really try to imagine it with Rachel making all the insane demands and then revenge-dating the instant Ross stands up to her harpy crap, and tell me your first thought isn’t a variation on “What a bitch.”

    In honesty, it is…but then, I admitted my first thought about Ross’s behavior leading up to the quasi-breakup is “what an asshole”. I don’t cut Ross ANY slack for his behavior toward Rachel…only in his response to her “breaking up” with him.

    Re: the “sleeping with somebody right away” thing…I don’t know of a man who would think Rachel was cheating/unfaithful if she had hooked up with somebody after Ross said that. I think the more general response would be, “buddy, your fault for kicking her out of bed” (which, granted, is not an enlightened response either).

    As far as your first paragraph…I think (hope) we’re making progress on the “male admiring female” front, and not just in “admire your wife’s cooking skills”. My wife is better than me with computers, and I frequently tell all and sundry this (including her), and admire her for it. While I don’t admire her for being able to outshoot me (she can’t…I don’t think; we’ve never directly competed), I do admire her ability (for that matter, willingness) to shoot. And I certainly admire her ambitions…especially since I don’t have many of my own.

    I do tend to see relationships as “you’re each there for the other, in whatever way they need you…because that’s what you do when you’re in love”. But I won’t deny that this is not cultural-standard.

  3. harlemjd says

    huh. I though Ross was a whiny-baby from the first episode. Even back when Friends was funny, it would have been better if that character had been killed off.

    That said, I don’t think Ross was clearly wrong to interpret “take a break” as he did, or to sleep with someone else. Where he went wrong was in refusing to admit that there was any ambiguity in what she said, aknowledge how their misunderstanding looked to her, and promise to work harder at communicating honestly with her. (granted, she took the same sort of “you are totally wrong” attitude, but I found that less annoying from her, given that he was the one whining, undermining her at work, sleeping with someone else, etc.)

  4. says

    Re: the “sleeping with somebody right away” thing…I don’t know of a man who would think Rachel was cheating/unfaithful if she had hooked up with somebody after Ross said that.

    I have a hard time seeing any of my friends and co-workers boyfriends not freaking out if they ever found out that she’d slept with a guy the same night that they had broken up. Seriously, where do you live? I’d love to move to this place where guys have managed to not at all internalize the virgin/whore dynamic as well as being not at all possessive of their girlfriends.

    The other thing that the gender flip made me realize is how different it is for Rachel to show up at Ross’ work than the other way around. Seems to me that Ross could play it as as “girlfriends are crazy” but Rachel would have a harder time as being treated as the equal of a man (and not going to get married and have kids and leave) if people were reminded that she has a personal life.

  5. says

    Jay, I’m having trouble reconciling the men you know with the men I know… and the fact that “jealousy” is the number one reason why men murder women.

    I hope we’re making progress on the admiration thing. I have yet to see it in my life – then again, by my mid-twenties, I had learned that telling men about my non-girly passions (computers, saving the world, etc.) caused them to get condescending, so I stopped sharing those things with them. Offline. ;)

    Harlemjd, agreed except that to me, Ross was already an asshole for being so possessive that he allowed himself to interfere with her job. And for telling her it was “just a job”, like it’s his value judgment to make. What really gets me, however, is that what causes Rachel to need a break is his continual suspicions that she’s cheating or wants to cheat with Mark. And then what does Ross do? Sleep with someone else. Hypocrite.

    Mickle, that’s a good point. Additionally, I find people are kind of always watching the women workers out of the corner of their eye to see if they’re gonna get married or preggers and suddenly leave without notice. To have Ross walk in there and waste her time sent a clear signal to Rachel’s co-workers that she didn’t have her job and love life compartmentalized in the way men traditionally do.

  6. says

    Okay, I’m going to eat a little crow and admit I made too broad a statement. Let me rephrase: most of the men I know would not think Rachel in the wrong if she slept with someone after Ross suggesting they “take a break from us”. I will grant that I know relatively few men compared with the general population, and that there are undoubtedly men who would take a different view, and further that while I (and I think, most of the men I know) would consider Ross being upset with Rachel a double-standard, there are plenty of people who have no problem with double standards.

    That said…you’re serious? Jealousy is the number one reason men kill women? I’m going to look into this…do you have a link or something (pretty please)?

    What really gets me, however, is that what causes Rachel to need a break is his continual suspicions that she’s cheating or wants to cheat with Mark. And then what does Ross do? Sleep with someone else. Hypocrite.

    Again…I think this is our main bone of contention. I don’t consider Ross a hypocrite for sleeping with someone else when a.) he thought he and Rachel were separated and b.) he had what he thought was confirmation of that from Mark’s background voice.
    Part of this may be male-projection…Ross heard Mark and thought, “now if I was Rachel and had a hottie in the room, we’d totally be doing it…so Rachel must be doing it, since that’s what I’d do”.
    But I don’t see hypocrisy in Ross’s actions/responses to what I (and he) considered 2 different situations: Ross was concerned about Rachel’s behavior while they were in a steady relationship (and granted, he was overreacting)…that’s different from his behavior when they were out of a relationship (and I know, you saw it as more a “suspension of activity” than a “end the relationship”, but that’s just one where we differ).

    Brief note re: the word “break”. Yes, you read in the context of “a temporary reprieve”. As regards to relationships, at least, I (and maybe others…maybe men more than women?) tend to read it in the context of “a fracturing, severing, or detachment”. There may still have been hope/thoughts of getting back together, but when he heard the word “break”, I find it reasonable for him to think “we’re apart”…and then hearing Mark at Rachel’s place probably made him second-guess that “getting back together” thing, especially since I kind of always saw Ross as a low-self-esteem kinda guy…part of his jealousy/overreaction was probably due to the fact that he couldn’t believe Rachel would stay with him, that she might go with a better/handsomer guy any minute.

    EDIT: One last thing, for Mickle…I’m in Alaska, but I wouldn’t say it’s the “where I’m from” so much as maybe the men I tend to associate with. While I admit there are guys who have internalized that virgin/whore thing and are crazy-jealous, I don’t like those guys, and so don’t really get to know them.

  7. scarlett says

    One of the few episodes I saw was when Ross finds a way to connect with Rachel’s dad: by making fun of her, the things she does, the choices she makes. I thought it was incredibly tacky and I didn’t get why she was with him. (Having said that, I’ve had an ex see my perceived flaws as a goldmine for comedy, so maybe I’m less inclined to find it funny.)

    But another episode I saw had her, Monica and Pheobe become devoted followers of this stupid self-help book and spouting off passages which made no sense at random points of Ross doing or saying anything and it left me thinking ‘you’re both self-absorbed idiots’.

    What I didn’t get about this show even before I bothered to sit down and watch a few episodes was how getting so much mileage out of them as a couple was romantic. To me, a couple who are always bickering and hurting each other over what I see as pretty small misunderstandings and miscommunications and always breaking up and getting back together are a joke, not an iconic romance.

  8. says

    Jay, of course I can’t find the link now. I came across it months ago when I was trying to search for ANY estimate of how many men are actually domestic abusers. The article claimed that possessiveness and jealousy were the main factors in the majority of homicides of women committed by men. (I swear, I just spent 20 minutes looking for a link to that – damn search engines. Worthless.)

    This may factor in the established data which supports that one of the most dangerous times for a woman is when she’s leaving an abusive partner – the abuser’s fear of abandonment (or resentment at losing his punching bag) can trigger a killing rage which could be interpreted as possessiveness (“if I can’t have you, no one will”). If you want a link on that, I’ll find one later. ;)

    I still think you and John (who commented on the other thread) are both proving my point rather than disproving it. Which is: men have the privilege of being able to look at relationships as all or nothing because men don’t “have to” put up with any shit from women. Women may have it better now, but we’re still coming from centuries of economic dependence on men – when you are not allowed to earn a living or own property, you begin to find ways to compromise. Even though times have changed, women still are taught to approach relationships thinking, “What do I have to give this man to get what I want?” while men are taught to think, “I wonder which of these women will give me what I want?” So when we’re not getting what we want, most women try to adapt before they throw it all away. Men, in my first and second hand experience, are more likely to just throw it all away and see if the next woman’s any better.

    Rachel was suggesting an adult, sophisticated method to allow them to get some perspective and come at things again fresh, later. Ross reacted like an infant: either Mommy is right here in front of my face, or Mommy has left me forever.

  9. says

    Part of this may be male-projection…Ross heard Mark and thought, “now if I was Rachel and had a hottie in the room, we’d totally be doing it…so Rachel must be doing it, since that’s what I’d do”.

    Well, yeah. That would be pretty much the problem, imo.

    Rachel suggests some time apart so that they can both get a better handle on the situation, and what does Ross do? He not only continues projecting instead of really trying to understand her perspective, he uses his selfish thinking to justify a selfish act.

    I mean, it would be one thing if he really thought they were never getting back together, but this is the same guy who has been pining over Rachel for a freakin’ decade at this point. And the first thing he does when she suggests that they might not be working out is to sleep with someone else? He didn’t let “no” stop him from hoping before, why would an ambiguous phrase like “take a break” cause him to cease caring about her feelings now?

    Unless there’s reason to believe that Rachel is open to open relationships, (and there isn’t) there’s really no way that Ross doesn’t come off as an ass in this situation.* He’s waited how long for her? And then sets fire to the bridge at the slightest hint that the ‘ship might not make it? If nothing else, that sure as hell isn’t the rational response of someone who has actually been in love with Rachel for years. It is, however, what someone might do if he had put her on a pedestal years ago and had been admiring what he thinks she is like all this time.

    Even worse (because everyone makes mistakes so the sleeping with someone else is forgivable by itself) he tries to justify his actions instead of admitting that it wasn’t the most loving, loyal, or smartest thing he’s ever done. That more than anything else is what made me hate the character.

    *Or possibly just really, really hurt, and needing to lash out and forget at the same time. But god forbid a man admit to being emotionally vulnerable. Sure, it’s ok to point out that she’s not fulfilling your needs, but better be sure those needs are couched in terms that make it clear it’s bout her being faithful and worthy, not about you needing reassurance and love. Plus, that makes it partly revenge, which is what the Ross defenders have been arguing his actions weren’t.

  10. scarlett says

    From what I remember of this storyline, what added to Ross being an ass was the way he tried to cover his tracks. I’ve been in a comparable situation and if teh guy knew he was about to get busted and didn’t have the guts to tell me, let me find out through the grapevine. He didn’t admit he was wrong, either in doing it or hiding it, he didn’t even grasp that if he’d told me himself, I may have still trusted and respected him to give him another chance but after that, there was no way I could look aty him without thinking ‘what else is he hiding’.

  11. littlem says

    “..if you’re a woman who wants security from a man, that’s not so hard to get because men are culturally trained to provide that to women”

    Um.

    If you’re looking for a man who’ll pull his fair share?
    I’d submit the assumption that that’s available just because one is a woman is a tall order, even there.

    It may be a comparative “gimme” if one is a North American (Nordic- or Nordic-looking) Caucasian, but …

    • says

      It’s not a gimme even then, but the myth persists because it enables people to Feel More Sorrier For the Menz. White/Caucasian women who are too fat, too big-nosed, too skinny, too “ugly”, too shy, etc., are pretty invisible to men who are “culturally trained” to provide for women because that same culture “trains” them to define “women” very narrowly. All women who fall outside that definition would have to scrabble to get a man to “provide” for them, because that culture has NOT taught men that these women are entitled to be provided for.

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